January 08, 2016

Lisbon to Brisbane

I spent Christmas in Lisbon with my girlfriend’s family. Her father, an architect, has been walking the cliffs west of the city since he was a child. Before the festivities, he took me for a walk along the coast: twenty kilometres from Azenhas do Mar down to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe, then back inland.

He walks like a mountain goat and knows the clifftops like the back of his hand. We’d come to what I saw as an impassable drop, only for Pedro to begin effortlessly clambering down the rock face. On occasion, he’d turn to me and say: “There’s no shame in using four feet for this bit,” indicating his hands. I would immediately plant my hands, feet, and butt on the rocks too, going for five full points of contact.

Midway through the walk we stopped at the beach called Praia da Ursa, to eat our sandwiches and enjoy the surprising warmth of the December sun. Ursa has two notable rocks just offshore: the one which gave the beach its name, and Noiva, the Bride.

“Just take anything out of the sandwiches you don’t like,” he said. I looked between the slices and saw cheese, meat, pickles, hazelnuts, salad. It tasted good after ten k’s up and down the cliffs. I chewed and look up at the two rocks.

“I can see why that one’s the bride,” I told him - Noiva billowed out around the waist like the train of a wedding gown - “but Ursa doesn’t look anything like a bear.”

“No,” said Pedro. “There used to be a rock that did look like a bear. It gave the beach its name, but then collapsed into the sea. So they shifted the name to another rock.”

We sat for a while in silence. Pedro is an acclaimed sketch artist, invited to festivals and other events, and normally he would draw in any spare moment of his day. When he visited us in London last year, he’d even capture pub life and street scenes in between sips of dark ale.

“Do you ever draw things you’ve imagined,” I asked him, “or only things that you’ve seen?”

“Sometimes I draw from photographs,” he told me, “but I don’t invent what I draw.”

A couple of nights later, Pedro found me a picture of the original bear rock. It was in a book from 1926 called O Romance das Ilhas encantadas - The Romance of the Enchanted Isles - illustrated by Roque Gameiro.

The author, Jaime Cortesão, was a writer and historian, but also a medic - one of those impressively hirsute fin-de-siècle types who dabbled in a bit of everything. The Enchanted Isles presents itself as not fiction, but a collage of ideas and folk tales, which the reader should imagine being told at the fireside by a grandfatherly sailor. 

The islands have been enchanted in the distant past by a necromancer and are guarded by the mulheres marinhas, sea nymphs who drive away any sailors who come too close. Early in the story, a knight from Minho, in the far north of Portugal, goes hunting and discovers a mulher marinha on the shore, beginning his voyage of discovery. 

Even though Minho is far from Lisbon, the beach we see in the illustrations is unmistakably the Praia de Ursa - with the original bear rock. As Pedro pointed out to me, the fantasy landscape was also a record of the coast’s geography.

Now I find myself going from Christmas festivities to Creative in Residence for the State Library of Queensland, Lisbon to Brisbane, a role with a rhyme. In Portugal, I walked on foreign shores and saw how fanciful names became attached to nature. A man who only drew what he really saw showed me how dreams laced the landscape, capturing natural history in a picture from folklore.

Australia is new and old for me, something dreamt and known and always surprising. I’ve worked and lived and travelled here before, but rarely in Queensland; I’ve written and made things for people’s enjoyment, but only by listening to what communities need and what they’re capable of; and always with the awareness of the history between Britain and this distant land, from 1788 to Gough Whitlam’s dismissal to today, bearing the weight of identity as a Pom returning to the Lucky Country, with all the postcolonial legacy that implies.

I’m honoured to be in this role, and humbled as always by any job that gives me leeway to invent as well as observe, as the fishermen did who called the rock a bear and the painter who put a mermaid on the historic beach. But it begins by walking the landscape, by watching, by listening. This week, I take my first steps.